The opening ceremony of the 15th Chennai International Film Festival began with a spectacular performance by Anuradha Sriram, who led the audience through eight decades of Tamil cinema with a medley of songs – with a line or two from each. She began with the MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar era, went on to the fifties, sixties, and then, she reached the Ilayaraja era. That's when the applause began, that's when the whistles began to pierce the air.
I was stunned for a couple of reasons. One, I thought the audience would be – given the occasion – a little more decorous, and it was wonderful to be proved wrong. If this is how we express our enjoyment, there's no reason it should be otherwise at a festival showcasing the best of world cinema. The other reason for my surprise was that the audience chose to express themselves this way only during the Ilayaraja section. There's no denying our love for the maestro's music, and no accolade is really enough – my surprise was more about why there wasn't any love expressed for, say, Nilave ennidam nerungathey, the MS Viswanathan/PB Srinivas jewel from Ramu.
So I thought: Maybe the youngsters in the audience outnumber the older folk. Maybe it's just that Ilayaraja's fans are more vociferous about their idol's music. (Maybe the older audience is more likely to simply smile nostalgically.) But I wonder if there's something else – because when our radio stations play what they call "retro" music, or the "classics," it's almost always Ilayaraja's music, and only Ilayaraja's music. On many levels, it's easy to see why. He's a genius whose prolificity is unmatched. Many of the people he worked with – Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Mani Ratnam – are still around, and thus his music is still in "cultural circulation." Plus, many of today's younger filmmakers grew up in the giant shadow of Ilayaraja's music, and they keep referencing his songs, which makes these songs cross over to newer generations.
In addition, the internet has played a major hand in furthering the legend of Ilayaraja. His songs are polished up and restored and put out on YouTube. Legions of fans keep discussing and dissecting his music, legions of newbies keep discovering his music. Most importantly, his music is modern enough – and his syntax still current enough – to not alienate the iGeneration. (Even with the iffy recording of some albums, the music of his prime period dazzles.) Being a great creator is reason enough to be remembered, worshipped, but when you add these other factors, the "brand recognition" blasts through the roof.
My concern is just this: What about the others, the ones who came before Ilayaraja, or even his contemporaries? Are they doomed to be remembered only by those of us who grew up in the Vividh Bharati era, listening to songs on the radio and watching them on Oliyum Oliyum? I've said this many times before, and I'll say this again. Because my generation (and preceding generations) didn't have a choice, because we simply consumed the entertainment the programmers on radio and television decided for us, we were perforce exposed to a variety of music.
Once choice comes into the picture, the options shrink. Of course, there is going to be the odd, 20-year-old enthusiast who seeks out all kinds of music, but I'm talking about the more casual listener. They're going to download "Ilayaraja hits" or "Rahman hits" or "Anirudh hits" – that is, they will go for songs by names they are familiar with. And Ilayaraja is possibly the last familiar name from the "classic" era – just like "classic" Hindi film music stops with RD Burman for most radio stations up north.
So how do we make sure Nilave ennidam nerungathey survives? Look, I'm not saying it has to survive. I can't force anyone to like a song I love. Things are born, things die – it's the circle of life, et cetera. But are we giving music from the pre-Ilayaraja era (or even the music of his lesser contemporaries, like Shankar Ganesh or T Rajendar) a chance? It's one thing if someone says, "I've listened to Nilave ennidam nerungathey and it doesn't work for me." But are they even being given the opportunity to listen to it, except perhaps in a few time slots on the radio, and besides, which young person listens to the radio anyway?
Every time a major actor from our generation – someone we grew up watching – dies, we feel a part of us has died with him or her, because there are so many memories attached. It's the same with songs. Every time someone says they haven't heard, say, Pournami neram from Paalaivana Solai, I feel a twinge. (I also feel like an old fart, but that's another story.) How young this Shankar Ganesh song seemed just yesterday, with the dynamic vocals of SP Balasubramaniam (he's fabulous; his breathless singing here is a precursor to the more famous Mannil indha kaadhal, by Ilayaraja) and the music that perfectly showcased Vairamuthu's new-fangled poetry, so alliterative and amusing, so… free. Will anyone even know such a song existed by the time the 50th Chennai International Film Festival rolls around?